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One of Curriculum for Excellence’s strengths has been its focus on literacy. “Competence and confidence in literacy, including competence in grammar, spelling and the spoken word, are essential for progress in all areas of the curriculum. Because of this, all teachers have responsibility for promoting language and literacy development.” Since the mid-1970s however, schools have deprioritised knowledge of language. The emphasis on how language was used, rather than formal grammatical knowledge, has limited the language skills of a generation – including those of teachers.
New Scottish research (Sangster, Anderson and O’Hara. Perceived and actual levels of knowledge about language amongst primary and secondary student teachers Language Awareness, 2012) should set alarm bells ringing.
Overwhelmingly, primary teachers know how to teach but many are under-confident in teaching specialist subjects, including grammar. While teachers’ own linguistic knowledge is crucial for successful language teaching, their knowledge about language is ‘patchy and idiosyncratic’.
Research suggests that while language is developed by use, awareness of specific aspects of language helps develop competence. In other words, knowing the rules helps in applying the rules.
This poses a question for teachers: how much of that declarative knowledge (an ability to explicitly express these rules) do teachers need? Research also suggests that explicit knowledge about language, including grammatical terminology, is central to effective teaching.
Researchers devised an assessment to identify and discuss literary devices, understanding of social variation in English, knowledge of the differences between spoken and written language and grammatical knowledge. The test measured mastery at levels expected of a competent 12 year old.
A questionnaire was also designed. Participants had to indicate confidence in identifying and defining parts of speech, appropriate critical terminology when comparing two poems, differentiating between accent and dialect and identifying how dialect differs from standard English.
The test and questionnaire were administered to Scottish university students, from four groups of teachers in training: primary BEd students, postgraduate primary Diploma students, post-graduate secondary English students and post-graduate secondary Modern Languages students.
Those studying to be primary teachers were less knowledgeable than those pursuing the secondary programmes. Older students (over 40s) had better language knowledge, as did students educated outside Scotland.
In the language test, marked out of 60, the mean post-graduate score was 36 and for under-graduate (BEd primary teachers in training) 28.
Only 32 per cent of students training for secondary teaching and 6 per cent training for primary teaching could define syntax. Twenty per cent could not identify nouns in a sentence; 93 per cent could not identify the adverbs.
Young teachers can produce a piece of writing appropriate to the purpose, audience and form but many lack a meta-language to explain that process.
How can they teach what they cannot explain?
These findings revealed distinct limitations in trainee teachers’ declarative knowledge of grammar and other essential elements of linguistic knowledge but confidence markedly outstripped the knowledge demonstrated. That student teachers generally displayed higher levels of confidence in their knowledge than their performance indicated poses questions about their capacity to recognise and rectify that deficit.
One response is that initial training programmes need to incorporate teaching of knowledge about language. Student teachers might then be more able to transfer content knowledge and pedagogical approaches into classroom practices. If developing school students’ literacy is a key policy, and if teacher knowledge about language is at the heart of literacy development, then teacher training providers face a major challenge.

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on Monday 3 December 2012:

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